'One nation' - but under what?
When the nation's Founding Fathers declared their independence from England in 1776, they stressed that their actions were authorized by a higher authority than even the king himself.Skip to next paragraph
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They based this revolutionary credo on their understanding that the fundamental rights of men did not flow from man-made institutions. Rather, those rights flowed from what they saw as deeper truths - "That all men are created equal," and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
To those who signed the Declaration of Independence, these "truths" were self-evident.
Now, 228 years later, the US Supreme Court is at the center of a debate - over the Pledge of Allegiance - that suggests such views about the religious underpinnings of American government may no longer be self-evident.
Indeed, government attempts to highlight religious concepts may be unconstitutional. At issue is whether the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge - as recited by schoolchildren nationwide - amounts to a violation of the separation of church and state. The case, set to be argued Wednesday at the Supreme Court, cuts to the heart of a long-running dispute over how best to preserve and protect religious liberty.
It also raises a more fundamental question: Why would America's Founding Fathers, who wrote so eloquently of their "firm reliance on the protection of divine providence" in the Declaration of Independence, use not a single devotional word or phrase in the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
Instead, the First Amendment forbids any law "respecting an establishment of religion." Courts have interpreted that provision as mandating a "wall" between church and state. But justices, judges, lawyers, scholars, political leaders, and members of the clergy differ over how high or low that wall should be.
Those favoring a relatively low wall point to the national motto "In God We Trust" on the nation's money as an example of a government reference to God that does not violate the framers' intentions in erecting the church-state divide. They also point to the opening announcement at the US Supreme Court, "God save the United States and this honorable court."
Advocates of a high wall say that government should maintain strict separation in matters of faith and leave to the clergy and the people any use of religious words, symbols, or messages. Government entanglement in matters of faith taint and cheapen what should be private and sacred, they say.
"When you make the argument that this [reference to God in the Pledge] is no longer religious but is civil, or political, or patriotic in its orientation, you are trivializing religion. You are trivializing the meaning of God," says Derek Davis, director of the Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. "One of the reasons for the separation of church and state is it allows religion to operate freely of [government] so it maintains its sacredness."
It is in this broader context that the dispute over the Pledge of Allegiance arrives at the nation's highest court.
Specifically at issue before the court is whether a policy at the Elk Grove Unified School District in California requiring public school teachers to lead their students in the Pledge each morning amounts to an unconstitutional attempt by the government to indoctrinate impressionable young children with religious dogma. Michael Newdow of Sacramento, Calif., an atheist, filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent his daughter from having to recite the Pledge each morning. A federal judge threw the case out, but a federal appeals court panel agreed with Mr. Newdow, ruling that the school policy amounted to unconstitutional religious coercion by the government.
Newdow's case is further complicated over issues about whether he had proper legal standing to file the suit in the first place. Newdow is not married to his daughter's mother. The mother, Sandra Banning, is raising her daughter as a Christian, and neither mother nor daughter objects to reciting the Pledge. In addition, the family court in California has awarded exclusive authority to Ms. Banning to decide religious and educational issues in her daughter's upbringing.
In urging dismissal of the Newdow suit, lawyers for the school district, the US solicitor general, and Banning argue that since Newdow has no legal right to decide the religious upbringing of his daughter, he has suffered no legal injury from her recitation of the Pledge each morning.